An 85-year-old Beverly Hills psychiatrist has been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second-highest military honour, at the White House, more than six decades after he saved the life of a badly-wounded mission commander aboard a bomber crippled during a Second World War raid over occupied France.
Dr Bernard Bail’s medal was pinned to his chest by US vice president Dick Cheney, who told him: “From the day of our founding, the decisive protector of this nation’s freedom has been the character of citizens like you.”
“It is a joyous and thrilling and touching occasion for me,” Bail said later in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from the French Embassy in Washington, where he was also honoured.
“It is a thrill beyond everything you know, that the country remembers me after 60 years and rectified something they obviously overlooked.”
Philadelphia-born Bail said he did not think about his wartime experience often, but news of the current Iraq conflict jostled his memory.
“If I look at the war, our current struggle, then I think about what it was at that time,” he said. “Different time, different war, different purpose but insofar as you can be hurt or maimed, it’s the same,” he said.
The Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military decoration of the US Army after the Congressional Medal of Honour, is awarded for extraordinary heroism and risk of life in combat.
While based in England, Bail was lead radar navigator for a flight of B-24 bombers sent to attack a V2 rocket site in occupied France on June 5, 1944, a day before the D-Day Normandy invasion. When the lead plane failed to release its payload because of a malfunction and the other aircraft followed suit, the mission’s command pilot ordered another pass.
As they came around, anti-aircraft guns riddled Bail’s plane, killing the pilot.
“It knocked out the engines and the plane dropped about five, six thousand feet and then everything was chaos,” Bail recalled. “Gasoline was spewed to the flight deck. The engineer tried to stem the flow and he was blinded by the flow.”
The co-pilot levelled the plane using the one remaining engine and then cut off the fuel flow.
Bail hauled the mission commander, Lt Col Leon Vance, into his own seat.
“I saw his right leg had been (nearly) sheared off and his right pant leg was spilling blood,” Bail said. He used his belt as a tourniquet.
The lieutenant colonel was in shock and Bail wanted to get him to the bomb bay, hoping to somehow get him parachuted to safety, but Vance weighed over 14 stone and Bail was unable to move him.
“I waited. The plane was gliding and I could see it was beginning to turn toward the (English) Channel,” he said. He ordered the remaining members of the 12-man crew to bail out. Bail still hoped to rouse Vance.
“I knew if the plane began to nosedive I wouldn’t be able to get out,” Bail said. “I waited as long as I could and then I dove out.”
Vance did come round enough that he was able to steer the crippled plane - still carrying a 500lb bomb – away from an inland English village so that it plunged into the sea. Vance survived and was rescued, winning the Congressional Medal of Honour.
Bail’s medal citation said his decision to remain with Vance until the officer could take control of the plane was an “extraordinary act of heroism” that helped prevent further deaths.
Vance credited Bail with saving his life in a hospital interview with the BBC, but never formally recommended him for a medal because the plane carrying Vance back to the US was lost over the Atlantic.
Bail flew 22 more combat missions, earning many medals, including the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, a presidential citation and a Purple Heart. On his final mission, his plane was shot down over Germany and shell fragments wounded him in the skull and neck. He was captured and spent five months as a PoW.
That experience – during which a fellow crew member died of gangrene - convinced him to switch his post-war career choice from teacher to doctor.
“I wanted to be not somebody who was bringing bombs, but somebody who was bringing healing,” he said.
Bail said he did not think about medals until a friend from the war told him he had received a long-overdue honour and put him in touch with the 44th Bomb Group Veterans Association.
Robert Lee Aston of the group spent a year providing the paperwork to request the medal but said it was nothing new for him.